, | Games
Moscow_AI

When Shenandoah Studio’s Drive on Moscow came out last November, the AI was, shall we say, primitive. People playing their first game reported wiping out every enemy unit on the map. The previous release, Battle of the Bulge, had left a lasting impression of a revolutionary and flawlessly implemented interface with a game system that fit it perfectly. Drive on Moscow, despite its many merits, had a bit of a sour aftertaste.

After the jump, time for a palate cleanser. Continue reading →

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what_is_it_good_for

Games, especially wargames, tend to get superficial or even dismissive treatment in the mainstream press. So it’s refreshing to see an informed and thoughtful piece explore the outstanding design work of Volko Ruhnke, a CIA security analyst who happens to be the designer of a series of multiplayer counterinsurgency games, including videogame reviewer Tom Chick’s favorite Labyrinth and ex-Colombian general Carlos Ospina Ovale’s favorite Andean Abyss. The Washington Post’s Jason Albert is the best kind of mole, establishing his credentials as an insider only after the article hooks you.

Beginning as a 10-year-old more than three decades ago, I spent innumerable hours hunched over wargames playing commander. My parents didn’t understand. My friends who saw the sun regularly didn’t either. But I wasn’t alone. Even though I left wargaming behind, I never forgot the games’ ability to evoke a sense of time, place and history.

He then describes playing Ruhnke’s games with him at his home, his experiences at the World Boardgame Championships, and how games like this can be a passion for both designer and player.

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, | Features
Bogarus

The cultural origins of Russia aren’t something you’d expect to be addressed in a fantasy strategy game. The fact that you can find a synthesis of mythology and anthropology derived from a long-running historical controversy in the nation backgrounds for Dominions 4 demonstrates just how far from elves and orcs an erudite game designer can travel in creating a compelling, fascinating milieu. And still populate it with fireballs and broadswords.

After the jump, a study in red. Continue reading →

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, | Games
Moscow1

Game design seems easy when you just imagine it as a series of mechanics with names on them. Shenandoah Studio did so many things right (and almost nothing wrong) with their brilliant Battle of the Bulge iOS game that it might seem trivial to call the Allies the Soviets, draw up a new map, and send the panzers on their way to Moscow. In the world of wargame design, it’s not that easy. The switch from division level to corps/army level, from a two-week campaign to one that lasted two months, and from a battlefield that covered 150 kilometers to one that spanned over 600 kilometers in a single direction, all have the potential to wreak havoc with pacing, balance, and historical accuracy. So while gamers may see it as a quick and easy way to extend a game series, it is in no way a slam dunk.

After the jump, basketball metaphors on the Eastern Front. Continue reading →

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, | Features
dom_4

Almost exactly ten years ago, I happened to find an amazing demo on the Internet. It was for what looked like a fantasy strategy game. It was crude, even by the standards of 2003. It was completely inscrutable. You clicked on things and seemingly nothing happened. It had a lot of lore in it, but it didn’t explain many of the mechanics. It was almost like the lore was supposed to give you clues as to how the game worked. Except for selecting units and giving orders. You were on your own for those things. It was akin to being immersed in a foreign language by traveling to that country, but without knowing the first thing you needed to do was learn how to find the restroom.

After the jump, finding the restroom in Dominions. Continue reading →

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, | Games
photo (1)

See that? If you’ve played Battle of the Bulge by Shenandoah Studios before on the iPad, that screenshot might seem a little odd. You might not be able to put your finger on exactly what is different. The combat boxes don’t look like that, do they? Sure, they are clean, well designed, and a model for conveying information to the player in a stylish and meaningful way. But did they patch the game or something? Well, yes they did.

Battle of the Bulge was a revelation in wargaming when it came out just about ten months ago, but it was restricted to the iPad. The new Battle of the Bulge 2.0, which you can just call Pocket Bulge, adds support for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It also demonstrates that Shenandoah is capable of getting every bit of efficiency possible out of a small screen. It bodes well for their future designs, and because I’ve been playing a lot of their upcoming game Drive on Moscow, I can tell you (spoiler!) that the lessons Shenandoah is learning about optimizing their interfaces are being well applied to future products.

Bulge plays pretty well on the iPhone, which actually surprised me, because after playing it on the iPad, I couldn’t really imagine it getting much smaller. Shenandoah is designing their new Gettysburg game with the iPhone in mind from the start, which I have to admit worried me at first. The way in which Shenandoah was able to adapt Bulge to the much smaller form factor gives me some reassurance. Shenandoah is sponsoring a tournament befitting a pocket-sized Bulge, using the pocket-sized Race to the Meuse scenario. As of this writing there are a few spots left. And if you go to the in-app purchases, you will find a free Player’s Guide* to help you with strategy, as well as a design guide describing the game’s development which — if you’re interested in game design — I have to say will be some of the best $2.99 you ever spent. And it’s on sale for $5.99 until October 24th.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and thinking about Battle of the Bulge. And I’ve also spent a lot of time and energy thinking about and playtesting Shenandoah’s upcoming El Alamein and Drive on Moscow games. So when it comes to impartial observers, you probably need to take me off that list, although given my voluminous (internal) comments during the playtest, I still like to think I can tell the difference between good and bad ideas and implementation when I see them. But for the most part, I think that Shenandoah has got a lot of things going right now regarding traditional wargame design that are exciting to anyone who enjoys this type of game. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re following the future of wargame development, you should probably be following the progress of Shenandoah Studio.

*Full disclosure: I contributed to the Player’s Guide, so you’ll be reading some of my strategy tips. For free, though, so you don’t get any money back if you read them and lose anyway.
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, | Features
Michigan_and_Trumbull

We got to the end of Starship Week but still had a day left, which I’ll chalk up to the weird time disconnect that happens during faster-than-light travel. Kind of like when you travel through space for six millenia and when you get back you find out they’re still not out of Final Fantasy sequels. In any case, it leaves me a free day to explain that the moral of Starship Week can be found entirely in one story I could have told you at the beginning and saved you a whole bunch of time and screenshots.

After the jump, I hope you don’t feel mad or cheated. Continue reading →

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enterprise

Of all the starships in history, the Enterprise is the only one I can think of which has had such a long, consistent, and well-documented life. It started out in the 1960s as a toy suspended on wires and progressed through the 1980s and 90s as a more elaborate toy, to reach its present existence as a computer’s realization of its artists’ imaginations. Along the way, it died, and was reborn, and the emotions provoked by those events and its subsequent spawn form an almost family history that is shared by a fan base that has established its own lineages. Its captaincy is almost a royal succession, and the different courtiers all have their allegiances, but throughout it all, the throne itself is never in doubt. Because the entire timeline has taken place aboard one form or another of that talismanic ship.

After the jump, that darned ship. Continue reading →

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, | Features
azhanti_high_lightning

I was talking with a colleague about spaceship games, and told him I was particularly interested in games where you had to do things aboard a starship. He came up with a nice list for me that I’ve added at the end of this post. All of these involve being aboard a starship in some way.

But there’s one game that no one remembers anymore, and that you haven’t heard of either, and that’s reason enough to wrap up the week talking about it.

Because, after the jump, it tells a story that gets to the very heart of Starship Week. Continue reading →

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, | Features
Awful_Green_Things

I tend not to be jealous of people who are good at things that I’m not. I figure that’s just the way it goes. I mean, I’m good at some things, too. However, I make a special exception for artists. I have a great aptitude for thinking of things with none whatsoever for drawing them, so I can only imagine what it would be like to be able to illustrate my own ideas. If I had this and also had game design skills, then I’d be Tom Wham.

After the jump, wham, bam, thank you, Tom Continue reading →

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space_halls

I start the game by distributing the crew around the ship. Captain Neema Strof starts on “C” Deck in Pod 3 near the risor. Science Officer L.J. Gepidus is on “B” Deck, as is Maintenance Officer Najeb Kelly, although he’s all the way down the hall at the other end. Ground Survey Officer Blnt Skraaling and Biology Officer Hesiod Charybdis (I am not making any of these names up) start together up on “A” Deck, in the same pod no less.

After the jump, the adventures of Blnt and Hesiod Continue reading →

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black_hole_cygnus

The history of gaming is distinct, I think, from the history of gaming ideas. Gaming has been such a fragmented hobby that very often people weren’t aware of their peers’ ideas, leading to a lot of reinventing of the wheel. This struck me the other day when I was reading an excerpt from “Designing Modern Strategy Games” by George Phillies and Tom Vasel. Phillies is an old hand from the days of 1960s boardgaming, but what grabbed my attention was not about him, but about someone else. A guy named Sid Sackson. The excerpt below comes from that book. The “I” in the excerpt is Phillies.

Once upon a time, [I] had the good fortune to visit the greatest American board game designer, Sid Sackson, at his New York home. Sackson had by far the largest collection of traditional board games in the world. (He did not collect board wargames.) He estimated to me that he had 20,000 distinct titles. I can confirm that almost every room of his house was filled from floor to ceiling with games, including shelves in the middle of every room except the kitchen. He also had various game fragments, such as the cover of Race to the North Pole, a nineteenth-century game about a race to the North Pole via Montgolfier balloon. The collection was carefully organized, so that he could find whichever game he wanted almost immediately. Sackson’s game library was backed by a set of notebooks, so that when I described design elements of games from my board wargame collection, he rapidly inserted those details into a notebook and indexed them.

I have never heard of Sid Sackson, even though he wrote a column in the 1970s in Strategy & Tactics magazine, and has a Wikipedia page. That is almost certainly my loss. But if someone like me who plays (or at least knows about) a fair number of boardgames has never heard of the greatest American designer of such games, you can at least make an argument that someone should be doing a better job of spreading this information around. Oh, for those notebooks! So many designers were working in a vacuum, oblivious to all the game mechanics Sackson catalogued, reinventing wheels and warp drives.

But games do carry a flavor of their time, and picking up a box from thirty years ago can either dissuade you with the musty smell of outdated implementation, or entice you with the allure of imagination. There is a lot of imagination in games about spaceships. One particular one — The Wreck of the BSM Pandora by Jim Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen — has about equal parts imagination and frustration. For the time, that was probably a big win. If only they’d had Sackson’s notebooks.

After the jump, the big win Continue reading →

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, | Features
starcutter

This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone … Mayday, Mayday … we are under attack … main drive is gone … turret number one not responding … Mayday … losing cabin pressure fast … calling anyone … please help … this is Free Trader Beowulf … Mayday …

–cover of the original Traveller game box

One of my favorite books as a child was this oversize picture book called Space Wars Worlds and Weapons. It’s basically just a big book of paintings of science fiction stuff: aliens, planets, and lots of spaceships. There is some desultory text trying to tie these themes together, but it’s really all about the pictures.

The book starts out with a section on “space vehicles,” and the text quickly bogs down.

However you call it — star ship, rocket ship, space machine — the space ship is the foremost, some would say ultimate, sf symbol. If science fiction is all about other worlds, then the space ship is a part of that other-worldliness, connecting solar systems and universes … the public transportation factor.

After the jump, space fare Continue reading →

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